DS2.0 Panel Recap: Working With Outside Counsel and Gaining Control

It what was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated discussions of Discovery Symposium 2.0, Sue Dyer (HCA), Jan Mendel (AT&T Mobility) and Carlos Provencio (Morgan Keegan) served as panelists and led a lively discussion that detailed approaches to working with outside counsel in the discovery process. Anne Whitaker moderated.

Main Takeaways:

  • Set a line in the sand with outside counsel; Say, “This is how we’re doing it”
  • Building a “virtual law firm” controls outside counsel spending
  • Regional law firms and a collaborative model result in great value
  • It is important to set parameters on the front end
  • Law firms “will not change until we make them change”

Sue Dyer began the session by discussing the “virtual law firm” model, which includes the use of regional law firms and a HCA-dedicated team of Counsel On Call attorneys for discovery. Not only has this approach reduced costs, but it has made the discovery process more straightforward and efficient and eliminated the dependence on one law firm’s process versus another. HCA brings that consistency to each matter, wherever the matter takes place.

The panel and audience also discussed that as far as law firms are concerned, “not much has changed.” Some who came from the law firm background empathized with the law firm argument regarding the use of less expensive attorneys, specifically that “they sign the pleadings” and their work is attached to it. The counter to this, according to Carlos, is that it’s a matter of assigning value to types of work, and he sees the law firm in a more strategic role in litigation. He will pay law firms “for inspiration, not perspiration.” Audience members and panelists agreed saying that “law firms will not change until we make them change” and going as far to say that value pricing should be “part of their corporate responsibility.”

Panelists also discussed e-discovery and its addition to their workload, as well as to the budget difficulties they once experienced. While it was somewhat frustrating, panelists agreed that it has been more disappointing that law firms simply “do not get the team approach.” The turf battles and desire to handle everything on a case only impedes what in-house departments are trying to do. For Jan, this has given her the opportunity to be more creative with her budgeting and thought process, and she has seen dividends already and expects more in the coming months.

The cost of legal services was also discussed at length. Several attendees said they will not pay more than $500 an hour in attorney fees. The suggestion that law firms will continue charging high prices as long as “Corporate America” allows it created a lively discussion with the audience. One participant said she believes it is “offensive” to pay someone $900 to $1,000 an hour and will not approve partner hourly rate increases; she will, however, approve some associate increases (once she gets to know the associate’s work product). Since many big firms are not making changes to their hourly rate approach or insist on rate increases, many companies have utilized a virtual/regional firm network, which is much more in line with hourly rates under $300 per hour.

One audience member said she believes the root of the problem is costly law schools and student loan agencies. Because law school loans are due so soon after graduation, lawyers feel compelled to charge an unusually high hourly rate to pay back loans right away. Another audience member then said he believes the problem is law firms competing for higher profits, that it’s not the law school but the “economic model of the law firm.” He cited the cost of a paralegal at one firm of being more than $300 per hour, which indicated a complete lack of understanding regarding value. He also discussed two of his law firms’ stated goal to be on the “top profit per partner list,” which he said they achieved… but his company no longer works with those firms because of it. He said his company’s goal is to never pay more than $300 for an attorney (they are at the $500 cap currently).

The issue of how to tell a law firm “this is how we’re going to do it” was then discussed. While it can be a difficult conversation, all who spoke agreed that it’s important to set a hard line in the sand. Many stated that it’s become clear that whether or not law firms do realign their business model, there’s a better way to handle litigation and discovery anyway. One panelist noted that she doesn’t know if law firms are ever going to “get it,” but that they haven’t waited around for their firms to do so.

The importance of setting parameters on the front end of a working relationship was also discussed. Several participants stated their desire to get better in this area; clearly defining roles and who will handle what work are important issues to address that aren’t always black and white. Including law firms in the decision-making process regarding the distribution of work and budgeting was one approach highlighted; giving firms the opportunity to match prices for discovery work has been utilized by some, but no firms have “met that offer.” Within that context of collaboration, Carlos discussed Morgan Keegan’s approach in using similar-size regional law firms and how, much like Sue and HCA, Morgan Keegan is already seeing benefits. The firms work well with one another and his Counsel On Call team; when a matter arises that a firm needs assistance with, another firm in his network will step up “seamlessly.”
 

Lather... Rinse... Repeat

I’m sure we’ve all felt like we’re stuck in this cycle at some point. It’s very easy to fall into patterns and ruts, especially with endless piles of work or when something has typically been handled a certain way.

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!               

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

If we’ve learned anything the last two years, it’s that taking a different look at the delivery of legal services is, at a minimum, a healthy exercise. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think corporate legal departments used to search for ways to spend more money or work less efficiently. I don’t believe law firms weren’t trying to provide value to their clients prior to 2008. But it’s not a stretch to say that those issues were once lost in the “lather rinse repeat” world of legal services up until the bottom dropped out of the economy.

Now the focus on these issues is apparent, and many in-house departments and law firms have taken dramatic steps in recent months to retool their operations or install cost-containment measures. But what does it really mean? Does saving $2 million a year in legal expenses signal escape from the rut? Does reorganizing who handles a client’s work mean that a new approach has been adopted? These very well may be very positive steps, but real change has more to it – and the benefits could be tenfold.

Think for a moment about a typical EEOC matter, due diligence need or a stack of marketing contracts that must be renegotiated. If the average in-house department is already short-staffed (and swamped), where is the first call going? Outside counsel. Maybe there are good protocols in place for these issues – the associate receives the message and tries to get to these matters as quickly as he or she can, balancing it with the needs of several other clients. Even if an alternative or flat fee has been arranged for this type of work (ahhh – change!), it is still reliant upon a ‘lather rinse repeat’ way of doing things: Work comes in. Outside counsel contacted. Work handled. Invoice sent. Gratitude that the bill was as expected. There is value in known quantities, after all.

What I would say is that there are different ways to handle this work on both sides of the table. We’ve posted here about the Tripartite Model (or “three-legged stool”) model before – basically installing a new model for some of this mid-level work to client-dedicated (Counsel On Call) attorneys who collaborate with both in-house and external counsel. This allows outside counsel to focus on bigger issues and staff work in a more effective way; in-house counsel utilizes attorneys dedicated to their matters who are available as-needed. It’s flexible, fluid and responsive, and allocates resources efficiently and appropriately. It also saves money for both parties.

But let’s take it a step further and focus on value and improvement (not just process). Tracking, reporting and evaluation are cornerstones in everything, not just in e-discovery. What does the client truly get from our services? How can we better handle this work? How can we reduce the costs? What did we learn? How can we use what we’ve learned to make the work product better? Who needs to be plugged into this and at what point? What work is being duplicated by others or requires similar functions? How much time do these matters truly take? What work has been rejected by legal because of a lack of resources to handle it (but legal would really like to handle it)?

If these questions and others are being asked with your different types of work, your “legal pattern” likely has a more beautiful hue to it these days. There must be a broader perspective, even in the most “rut-like” activities.
 

What Are Your (Legal- and Business-Related) New Year's Resolutions?

OK, this is just a different (some might say lame) way of asking what your goals are in 2010… but ‘tis the season, eh?

There’s never been more at stake in the legal profession than there is now. There’s a palpable sense of change in the air… especially concerning the new legal model of law firms and the impact it will have on the way law is practiced and billed. But I’m not one to wait around for that to truly happen, so why not start moving forward? Here are just a few of the things attorneys have to tackle in 2010:

True cost containment of legal expenses … If you’re one of the thousands of in-house managers who has taken the reigns of your budget, designed new processes, brought more work in-house, cultivated new outside counsel relationships, and engaged alternative legal services providers… well, here’s hoping that you get more sleep in 2010, because you’ve likely been busier than ever. Those who’ve undertaken the commitment to cost containment should be applauded and hopefully the work they’ve done will make life easier down the road. This process will continue to evolve for these good people, and thousands more will start down this path anew in 2010. The point: This is the new way of life for corporate legal departments.
 

Alternative Fee Arrangements … Many of you have spent the last few months working on new billing structures with outside counsel, and many are still in the process. There are scores of conflicting reports about these arrangements, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. My guess is that we’ll hear plenty about the arrangements that work – after all, law firms have wonderful PR people – and we won’t hear much about the efforts that fail. But here’s the key: AFAs must be mutually beneficial, or they simply won’t work long-term. A certain amount of risk-sharing must take place and there must be value. I think AFAs have the ability to change the age-old approach utilized within law firms – and who handles what -- but a lot of the AFAs in use might really just be window dressing.

The Document/ESI Retention Policy… Interest in the design of document retention policies (or ESI Management Policies, as Barry likes to say) exploded in 2009. There’s just so much data now that companies are overwhelmed, and everyone is leery of 1) the smoking gun e-mail that’s been sitting in someone’s inbox for six years and 2) getting exposed for not implementing a solid policy. There is an obvious marriage between these two fears that in-house lawyers must officiate, and there’s no sign this responsibility will ebb in 2010. The key is in the implementation, and as our wise scribe Barry likes to say: “If you’re not enforcing your ESI policy, you have no ESI policy.”

Consistency, Process Across the EDRM… Everyone is dealing with e-discovery at some level, and many companies already have created some sort of approach to the actual review of documents when litigation hits. At the same time, most have spent their time and resources trying to figure out the document retention policy first before fully diving into project management, software and the attorney review. But this is where real dollars are saved and the spotlight will continue to shine on the processing, review and production of documents and creating a cohesive model encompassing all phases of the discovery process.

Convenience Versus Cost … Ah, the age-old question! Traditionally, when an in-house department has overflow work, it’s sent to outside counsel. Litigation, due diligence, employment work and other heavy lifting might also be completely turned over to the law firm simply because a department doesn’t have the resources. This approach is being evaluated, to say the least. But it doesn’t end there; many in-house departments now seek unit pricing that blends services (software + attorneys) for e-discovery matters because it makes budgeting easier and there is (or should be) some risk-sharing with the partner. The key for those who must closely monitor their legal spend is to understand that some providers don’t exactly assume any risk in this scenario because of the excessive padding they’ve built into their per-unit price. A general rule of thumb: if you can’t buy a super-value meal for the price you’re paying per-document, you’re paying too much.

Of course there are myriad other issues that in-house managers must create goals around in 2010, and we look forward to discussing many of those in the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful and prosperous 2010.

Pricing In The Alternative

The “alternative” in an Alternative Fee Arrangement (AFA) can be defined as “affording a choice between two or more things…mutually exclusive so that if one is chosen the other must be rejected.”

In the arena of legal fees, the alternative is compared to the standard billable hour. One potential alternative is a fixed fee. For other AFAs, see this interesting article where Pat Lamb argues that the “real point” should be to “shift risk from the client to the firm,” among other things.

The questions to ask are: what is the goal? What is the incentive and who should have it? Who takes the risk? Who should benefit from taking that risk?

Blended rates and known budgets provide predictability. Is that the real issue for clients? Is the debate between low cost and predictability versus unknown budgetary costs, or does it involve the ability of the legal provider to use reproducible cost-effective services over time for the benefit of the client?

I would argue that these types of arrangements will have a short lifespan. After a certain period of time, all a fixed fee arrangement offers is what the cost is going to be, not how the work can be done more efficiently, for less money, more intuitively, or in a manner in which you can best meet your goals. It also encourages a law firm to use minimal staff or attorneys billing at the lowest hourly rate, which may or may not be in the best interest of a client. The lack of value will be exposed at some point.

The bottom line is to define the goals you are trying to achieve. Is it predictability? Cost savings? Particular expertise? Time reduction? Maximum manpower? All of the above?

This is the point I was attempting to make last week: it’s imperative to think how these arrangements can work for both parties, because if it’s tilted one way or the other, it’s not a great system. Someone loses. And there’s just not a great understanding in the marketplace of how these “alternatives” truly function or if value is really received.

So I like to look at what I know. I know my company’s costs of doing business. I have a pretty good idea how long it takes for attorneys to review a gigabyte of data on most software tools. I know a lot of different ways we can reduce the amount of data to review. I know how we create efficiencies throughout the discovery process. Knowing all of this, I feel very confident we can provide several different pricing options for our clients, whether it’s per document or per gigabyte (the ‘fixed fee’ options, more or less), by the hour, or some other structure. (Although I’m talking about discovery here, the same basic principles apply to different types of work that might see alternative fees, like contracts, employment matters, IP issues, etc.)

If I didn’t really know all of what we know about our business, well … I would be basing everything on a lot of subjective data. That’s simply not necessary in today's marketplace. But because we do have the objective data and we understand our capabilities and costs, the client gets a great work product at a low cost, achieves measurable efficiencies, and ultimately the predictability and consistency that are sought. That’s a win-win arrangement, which is a great goal to shoot for from the beginning.
 

The Numbers Don't Lie

We recently conducted a survey of senior-level in-house women attorneys in Atlanta, with the goal of identifying a few best practices and sharing the information with the group at a luncheon (which was held yesterday). At a minimum, we opined, it would be reassuring for these women to know that their peers are dealing with some of the same issues, and this would be a more formal way to present the proof.

We got a lot more than the minimum. Over three days, 57 women responded, ranging from leaders within Fortune 500 companies to one-attorney departments. The responses provided some very useful information, especially regarding how in-house departments are working with their outside service providers. In fact, 29 of the respondents shared the steps they are taking to manage legal expenses, negotiate flat fee arrangements and take more work in-house. A handful of the survey questions and results are included after the jump.

One nugget that isn’t so uplifting, which we have discussed on this blog in various posts, is that in-house lawyers are still very worried about job security. Thirty-four percent of respondents listed it as one of “three things that keep me up at night,” with the correlated “economy/effect on company’s business” not too far behind (31.3%). Although we have seen that some companies and departments are starting to come out of the thaw, the majority of the in-house lawyers polled simply do not feel secure yet, even as many of them (48.6%) are taking on more work and responsibility.

These lawyers are and will continue to be under tremendous amounts of pressure and the results-driven environment in which they reside is going to have an effect on the way business is done in the legal profession moving forward, there’s little doubt.

A few of the interesting survey responses (more after the jump):

Which of the following best describes your legal department budget for 2010 (choose one):
    28.6%  Less than 2009
    37.5%  Equal to 2009
    10.7%  Greater than 2009
    23.2%  Not sure

Do you expect to use any new strategies in 2010 to manage your budget?
    54.5% Yes ... of those responding 'Yes' :
       ->46.1%  Alternative/Flat rate / Discounted fee arrangements
       ->34.6%  Do more in-house / Cut outside counsel spend 
       ->11.5%  More contract/outsource help
       ->  7.7%  Consolidation of law firms / Use smaller law firms

Share at least one recent success story on how you obtained efficient and affordable outside legal support, specifically your experience with alternative fee arrangements with outside counsel, if any.
    24.1%  Flat fee arrangement
    17.2%  “Not To Exceed” amount / Caps for each project
    13.8%  Negotiated discounted rate
    10.3%  Use Counsel On Call / Contract attorneys
      6.9%  Issued RFPs
      6.9%  Reviewed invoices closely / Identified areas for cost savings
      6.9%  Used smaller firms / Smaller offices of large firms with lower rates

What has been your biggest professional challenge in 2009 so far?
    48.6%  Doing more with less / Bigger workload
    27.0%  Morale / Team management issues
    18.9%  Work-life balance / Career
    13.5%  Managing business expectations 
      5.4%  Litigation

What three things keep you up at night?
    34.3%  Job security / Salary
    31.3%  Economy / Effect on company’s business
    25.0%  Litigation-related
 

Cost Cutting and Shifting Paradigms

We all know the economy is in the doldrums, but I thought it would be helpful to drill down a little bit to focus more on the legal sector and how it really impacts all of us -- and show why our company is positioned at the fulcrum of the coming change.

Here in Atlanta, we began to see a change beginning in May 2008. It began slowly with a change in complexion of some large projects, mainly with some of our law firm clients who were seeing less transactional work; some of the work our attorneys would normally handle was being handled by their associates. That was soon followed by an increased interest from several large, corporate clients to discuss ways COC could help them to bring their legal costs down. This reached a fever pitch in the late fall as the pressures of budgeting season came to bear. So, much has been made in the last six months – specifically over law firms merging, collapsing, or falling on hard times -- in reality the process truly began filtering down at least a year ago.

We have also seen these budgeting pressures reflected in the number of articles appearing in legal publications that discuss money saving alternatives. One of the most popular is coverage of the use of LPOs (legal process outsourcing) in India. There are pros and cons, and the coverage has been pretty balanced. There have also been articles discussing the wave of smaller firms that are holding rates at 2008 levels or, in some instances, cutting them. And finally, there is no shortage of articles that talk specifically about what law firms are doing to address the current economic climate both internally and for their clients.

It is safe to say that the emphasis on cost containment/reduction will continue for some time, and I think we have reached the tipping point our industry has been waiting for. It's hard to see it now, but this is going to be very good for our profession; I have been incredibly impressed with how many of our law firm clients are truly trying to make changes to meet the needs of their clients, especially concerning costs. As law firms jump on board -- and more opportunities emerge to work collaboratively -- the work product will be better and the client will be happier.

Unfortunately, many of these changes will come too late. The pressures being placed on legal departments by CEOs, CFOs and shareholders -- and sadly in some cases the bankruptcy court -- will be too much, too fast, to accept a change in direction. But ultimately, a multitude of changes will occur in the next several years over how legal services are delivered. We all must accept that these changes are coming and do everything we can to make sure the changes that are implemented by our clients are well-considered and strategic.
 

Taking More Work In-House

Given the state of the economy, it has been no surprise to find a host of recent articles concerning cost-cutting among corporate legal departments. Everything is on the table, including reductions in fees charged by outside counsel.

An Oct. 22 article (subscription) in Atlanta’s Fulton County Daily Report captured the ongoing discussion through quotes from several prominent GCs and legal department heads regarding various ways they are reducing costs. Almost every one of them mentioned “in-sourcing.” Robin H. Sangston, vice president and associate GC of Cox Communications Inc., offered a comment that many of the GCs echoed:

We have used a variety of approaches to controlling legal fees, including: bidding out 'commodity-type' work, moving work from higher-priced large firms to lower-priced smaller or boutique firms with lower overhead, using contract lawyers, implementing e-billing with our billing guidelines ... Given the state of the economy and the impact on almost all businesses, I would also expect that many companies will not entertain rate increases for next year.

The sum of it is that more and more work that would normally be the purview of outside counsel is being done in-house and costs are being reviewed closely; and the use of contract attorneys certainly fits well within this evolution. There are more flexible billing options and work arrangements and with the sheer number of talented attorneys leaving the traditional practice, the quality of the work performed is excellent.

What other measures are you taking today that you weren’t a year ago? Are these changes temporary or permanent in your department?
 

The Client's Best Interest

Recently I participated in a conference call with a prospective client about a voluminous e-discovery assignment. The call involved all of the players: several of us from Counsel On Call, the corporate legal department and its outside counsel (a prominent East Coast firm). These collaborative meetings are occurring more frequently now, which is refreshing. 

This trend roots from the determination that most law firms were not created to handle today’s e-discovery, but are better positioned to oversee and manage the discovery phase of litigation at a macro level. The client wants to save money on the review, let the law firm manage the process, and have an efficient communications process -- so a team approach involving corporate counsel, law firm lawyers and companies that provide litigation support services is practically a requirement today. It is this collaboration -- and open communication from the assignment's onset -- that ensures an excellent work product, as all of the players are working at their best use from Day 1. The process is more efficient, quality control is central and it ultimately better serves the client's interest and goals. It’s a business-partner approach.

Buyng into this approach is a big step for a law firm to take, but a very necessary one because legal departments need real business solutions and cost containment. The days when a firm can justify the cost of 50 associates (at $250+ per hour) conducting a large e-discovery review are over. What was somewhat surprising about the conference call, however, was that the law firm was Counsel On Call’s biggest advocate, as opposed to viewing us as the competition. But it seems that many law firms realize -- some organically, some by necessity -- that developing quality partnerships can be an asset to their practice (and put them in a better position with their clients). The ABA also seems to recognize (and bless) this outsourcing trend, as its Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility recently came out with Formal Opinion 08-451 outlining lawyers’ obligations when outsourcing legal support services.

Much like what this law firm coordinated (and what legal departments are insisting upon these days), it's always good to get everyone at the table together, bring all the challenges/issues out, and discuss the best possible solutions. We're seeing a lot more of this, and it's because a lot of money can be saved throughout the process by collaboratively hammering everything out on the front end.